Stories from the big city…

I am now in Oslo, the capital of Norway – and it is very different from the Norway of last week! Gone are the wooden houses, the expensive modern buildings and the personal boats – Oslo is a capital city in a European style much more familiar to me – Italianate squares and fountains, homeless people, Somalis, head-scarves, hipsters, man-buns, chuggers, iconic galleries, grubby delis and all the trappings of modern urban life. (I am not yet used to the water everywhere and the sailing culture, I like this bus stop next to the boat stop). Statistics say that by 2040 half of Oslo’s population will be immigrants. Norway’s state system is very attractive to immigrants with the biggest groups coming from Poland, Sweden, Somalia, Lithuania and Pakistan.

This is also reflected in the prisons and the prison population. One third of prisoners across Norway are foreign nationals and higher in the Oslo prisons. The prisons in Oslo are slightly more similar to prisons in the UK, older buildings housing a lot of inmates. One prisoner I interviewed told me about the atmosphere in Oslo prison, “You know where you are in Oslo Prison, you are not friends with the guards, there is much more gangs within the prison, it’s not a bad thing, I like the stricter regime ” 

It is very interesting – I am going to talk about change again, for the last time, as I really MUST talk about technology, well-being and storytelling, as that’s what I am here to research! I am learning that the prisoners themselves, the staff, everyone is quite resistant to change. Although they moan about the prisons, they like to ‘know where they are‘ with the staff and the regime. Whether this is consensus fallacy or something deeper – I think the culture of change is really tricky. I have had debates with former prisoners in the UK who romanticise a little the old victorian prisons. In my view they are not fit for purpose any more and should be pulled down, or turned into public art spaces, but this can be met with, “Nooooo, it wouldn’t be a proper prison then?” like you have to be rattling your chains and slopping out for it to be ‘proper’ – and thats the prisoners themselves? They don’t actually want a liberal regime where they can wonder freely around their flat, cook for themselves, chat with guards and act normal – they are somehow buying into the prison world of contraband, us-vs-them,protection rackets and complaining about the system. That’s the status quo and that’s how they like it. Look at how long term prisoners cannot cope with lower security conditions – they are so used to the prison life. At least in Norway on the whole they try and make life inside match life outside from the start – this is almost impossible in the UK now, to go back and change that culture. I was chatting to the prison guard/ therapist in Trondheim and she was saying, “In Norway, the loss of the freedom is enough, there is no more punishment, everything else is preparing for society and living on the outside” It seems in the UK we are gluttons for punishment ! I would go as far to say the prisoners almost like and expect it.

I have been in three different prisons in the last four days, all very different. Bergen a ‘large’ and modern prison.  Trondheim – a medium sized  (160) higher security prison, spoken to the arts and craft teachers, the people who run the workshops and the officers and staff. There is so much to say I need to process it all some more – Bruvoll is near Oslo and  a small unit of only 70 inmates – a low security ‘last stop’ facility – they have a very high (60%) immigrant and foreign national population.

My day at Brovoll was very interesting as lots of people attended the day and came to see me and discuss our work. There were two visiting professors from Hedmark university who were really fascinating, especially Inger Haug, a professor of political science, a lively and questioning 68 year old woman who’s English was impeccable. The staff were telling me that the culture in that prison had changed over the last few years, the government was spending a lot of money on Electronic ‘Tagging’ devices – so people were not staying at the facility very long, not long enough to help them. The prison is housed in a old police training academy – so not purpose built – they gate is often open, it is low security but funnily enough one of the only prisons in Norway where you share a cell and eat in a canteen. It seemed women ran the place, from the carpentry workshop, to the guards, in the kitchen – at least 60% of staff were women. We watched two stories of two inmates that were really quite brilliant, I was really impressed. One Ethiopian, one Somali – they both had spent time living in England. One had been over with his football team and trained with Manchester City (My team!) his story was full of pictures of those happy days – the other had lived in Woolwich Arsenal at the time of the riots, he had been a 16 year old Somali and joined a gang, WB (Woolwich Boys)a really interesting insight – the teachers really had a good handle on what a digital story was and is, the boys were proud and happy to chat to me about the process. They wanted to make another. I was fascinated with the boys wondering how their story had taken them through London or Manchester and now to prison in Norway. They could have easily been in a London prison. I was thinking, ‘how strange, that I had to come to Norway to hear the voice from ‘the other side’ of the riots’ – an unheard voice of a Somali gang member, vulnerable and scared at times, joining the gang only because he didn’t know what else to do. I had only been fed everything I knew of the riots from the media. It reaffirmed that uncovering these voices and stories is very important.


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